4 Tips For Dealing With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

People in Shadow

Now that I see what my parents didn’t give me, how do I continue to interact with them?

How do I handle the pain that I feel now, as an adult, each time my parents treat me as if I don’t matter?

I feel sad or disappointed every time I see my parents. Then I end up feeling guilty because I know that I should feel happy to see them. How do I handle that?

If you were raised by parents who were not tuned in enough to your emotional needs, then you have likely lived your life feeling vaguely (or maybe even clearly) uncomfortable around the two people with whom you are supposed to be the most comfortable. Your parents.

One of the hardest things about being raised by emotionally neglectful parents is that they seldom change. They continue to emotionally neglect you all the way into and through your adulthood. So you have probably experienced the pain of your parents’ failure to see and respond to you over and over throughout the years.

This is one of the greatest complications of recovering from CEN. Once you realize how deeply you have been affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), it can become quite difficult to interact with the parents who neglected you.

So back to the questions at the top of this article. What should an emotionally malnourished adult child do? What can be done to protect yourself in this most important relationship?

4 Tips For Dealing With Your Emotionally Neglectful Parents

  1. Ask your parents about their own childhoods – If you are unsure about why your parents were blind to your emotional needs, ask them some questions about their own parents and their own childhoods. You may be able to see whether and how your parents were failed by their parents. If you can see your own parents more clearly, you may be able to understand why they failed you. Understanding how they got their emotional blind spots may help you feel less hurt when you are affected by them.
  2. Try to find some compassion for your parents (within limits) – Often, when you can see how your own parents were emotionally neglected, you can feel some compassion for what they didn’t get. This can help you to feel less angry and frustrated with them for failing you. One important caveat, however: be careful with compassion because it can go too far. If your compassion for your parents makes you feel worse, it means you should dial it back, and turn it toward yourself instead. Holding your parents accountable, at least in your own mind, for the ways they failed you, is a necessary part of healing yourself.
  3. Prepare yourself before you interact with your parents – Your human brain has some default settings. One of those settings is an automatic, unconscious expectation that you will receive emotional nurturance from your parents. Since your parents are serving up a watered down version of nurturance, there is simply no way for you to not end up feeling disappointed. When you are about to interact with your parents, purposely lower your expectations. Remind yourself that your parents will not fulfill your natural human needs, and this will help you prevent that feeling of sadness and letdown.
  4. Consider talking with your parents about how they emotionally neglected you – This is not a necessary step to take for your happiness and health.  And for many, it can cause more pain. So this is not a decision to be taken lightly. But for some, when done with care, it can be healing and enlightening for all parties. To make the decision about whether to broach this topic with your parents, it helps to know which type of emotionally neglectful parents you have. To learn more about making this decision, check back for a near future article, Should I Talk With My Parents About Emotional Neglect?

IN SUMMARY:  It is certainly not necessary to talk to your parents about CEN. You can heal yourself without ever involving them. Learning more about your parents’ childhoods and having compassion for them may help make their emotionally neglectful ways less painful to you now. However, sharing the concept of CEN with them can be helpful in some families, and may be a way for you to improve your relationship with them. Be sure to take into account the type of CEN parents that you have when making the decision to talk with them. 

To learn whether CEN is a part of your life, and how it has affected you, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

And above all else, remember that your feelings are important. And your needs are important.

Yes, you matter.

To learn much more about healing the Emotional Neglect in your relationships, see my new book,  Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More. 

Photo by THX0477


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Heartbroken - March 30, 2018 Reply

I have dealt with my abusive and neglectful narcissistic mother my entire life. I have tried talking about her childhood, reaching out to her but everything she ever did was wonderful and every problem caused by someone else. She watched my father abuse me and often used me as a human shield. She took me out of my grandparents loving home because they grew too attached to me and she feared she’d have to share the inheritance someday. She told me this outright. She wreaked havoc on my life and my family’s although she helped us out every so often with small amounts of money that she had stolen from me to begin with. My 20-year-old daughter who was a lovely child who could never please my mother recently passed away. Although my mother acted like a mother the first two months after the death, she reverted back to denigrating my daughter and bragging about her superior relationships with the children and grandchildren of strangers. On my 60th birthday, she called just to say “Who knew that 60 years ago when I was embarking on my life in America it would end up with divorces and disappointments?” because she blames America and Americans for her problems and has frequently remarked that it’s not normal that fat ugly women like me get to marry and keep the good guys while beautiful women like her get dumped every time. Not one kind word for me or about me even when I’m grieving the greatest loss imaginable. I’m kind of done and trying to deal with the guilt that (a) it took me this long to get this toxic bitch out of my family’s life and (b) she’s starting to experience alcoholic dementia. But I have to take care of myself first for once in my life and I have to honor my daughter by permanently getting this witch out of my life.

Rattled - January 7, 2018 Reply

This is something I’ve been asking myself. I came across this concept by accident only a few days ago and something clicked with both me and my sister. We know our parents tried very hard, and we know enough about their childhoods to know that they just didn’t have the tools themselves. I’d bet money my mom even suffers from CEN. But I’m still feeling resentful to them for it. I don’t know how to interact with them now (which is a problem, since I live in an apartment just upstairs from theirs.)

Nick M. - December 13, 2017 Reply

My experience was similar to Tyler’s. I think the key here is expectations. I’m in my 60’s now, but when I was in my early 30’s and going thru a severe depression. It was so bad I had gotten to the point where I had started to plan my own suicide. I started to see a therapist, who advised me to diplomatically and tactfully confront my parents to see if I could break thru. I rehearsed what I wanted to say, and laid it all out without being accusing. What I got back was truly astonishing. They were so very sorry that I took it all the wrong way. They could not even begin to imagine that somehow they had been in ANY WAY shape or form wrong. They were so pleased to hear that I was getting help for how badly I had missed the mark. What I learned from this was not to expect amy empathy or sympathy whatsoever. If I got some, that would be fine, but don’t expect any at all. Like Tyler, I eventually cut off all contact. It taught me a very valuable lesson. I wasn’t bitter and I wasn’t angry – I just learned that my own peace and happiness had to come from me and no one else. Even if my parents had gotten down on their hands and knees and wailed and cried and said they were sorry and begged forgiveness and kissed my feet…none of that would have changed the past in any way shape or form. The only thing I could do was realize they were flawed people who did the best they could with what they knew. They did not sexually or physically abuse me. They kept me and my brother housed and clothed and safe and warm, and they worked hard to support us. I’m a pastoral therapist now, and I try to get my clients to re-frame their personal stories

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 14, 2017 Reply

    Dear Nick thanks for sharing your story with us. I do find that when parents actually see and take responsibility for having failed their child emotionally, it can make a tremendous difference in the life of the child, regardless of how old he or she is. I’m sorry your parents were completely unable to do that for you. I hope parents everywhere will finally understand that when they take ownership of their human failings, it helps to heal their children. I salute the strength and conviction you’ve shown in taking care of yourself.

      Genevieve - January 1, 2018 Reply

      Truer words have never been spoken. If I hadn’t experienced it myself I would never have realized how much pain is lifted when a parent owns up to their failings. After speaking to my mother gently for about three hours one day on the beach about how hard my childhood was she said that she was going to take it to her grave that she was a bad mother. She apologized. She was earnest and tears rolled down her cheeks. It just lifted a burden off my shoulders. My father has never apologized for the extensive neglect we suffered and that has taken a toll on myself and our siblings

MtVelveteen - December 13, 2017 Reply

I like all these suggestions, and have used them with myself, as well as my clients. In the interest of also focusing on one area of that we have complete control over, I would suggest that people who were neglected be mindful of how they talk to themselves when they make a mistake, approach a situation that is a risk, and are mistreated by others. (To name just three)
I have found that creating a compassionate and realistic nurturing parent inside myself to give “parenting lessons” when we find a lack of positive support, or negative put-downs in our internal self talk, since this often is a result of growing up with neglectful parents.
This internal “nurturing parent” must go beyond just being positive. Using our experiences with others that appear to have mastered always being supportive, acknowledging feelings when failing, being criticized by others, and even acknowledging our own contributions to mistakes while remaining positive about being a good person and giving the message that as long as we are growing and learning, it is all that matters appears to be a great template. So WE create the parent we never had, and listen and watch as they respond to any negative, anxious internal self talk, or to any of the previously mentioned situations.
For many, it works even better to not only focus on the tone – supportive and firm, but also adding a picture of whatever our imaginations gives us for what that supportive compassionately accountable internal parent would look like and do.

    MtVelveteen - December 13, 2017 Reply

    Oh…mind if I use this with my clients?
    I think it would be a great reinforcer of a lot of principles they learn in treatment.
    (I have been working with a variety of issues for 40 years, with a particular interest in how abusive patterns get passed down intergenerationally) This includes chemical dependency, alcoholism, the children of both, codependency, sexual abuse victims, people that aggressively act out sexually, etc.)
    Of course, I will retain all links to you, and information about you.

      Jonice Webb PhD - December 13, 2017 Reply

      Dear MtVelveteen, I would be happy for you to use my work in your work. Thanks for asking!

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 13, 2017 Reply

    Excellent suggestions! Thanks for sharing your valuable thoughts on this.

      MtVelveteen - December 13, 2017 Reply


      : ) !!

nks - December 11, 2017 Reply

What if it was more than just your parents who caused emotional neglect? In my case, my siblings were a huge part of the cause. My parents have been through several trials with their adult children and have realized they made mistakes. My older siblings were parental with me. I don’t know if they can handle talking about this. I’ve decided to keep my distance from them. I feel like eventually we will need to talk about this. My parents will likely ask me why I’m not talking to them and how worried they are about me.

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 11, 2017 Reply

    Dear nks, one idea would be for you to try to talk with your parents first. It sounds like they may be open to hearing some answers about what went wrong and why. And that would help them understand your need to distance from your siblings. Please take this suggestion as one that’s based on very little information about your situation. It’s the one thing that jumped out at me when I read your dilemma. Best wishes, and be sure to always put yourself first.

Tyler - December 11, 2017 Reply

It’s funny how stumbled through all your suggestions and came to almost all your observations but, unfortunately over the course of a lifetime stumbling, like a million monkeys with a typewriter.

I had the opportunity to talk with my angry, narcissistic, abusive mother without distraction during the four drive from my father’s home in Uxbridge, Massachusetts back to NYC. I was an adult with some therapy behind me and approached the subject of her childhood tentatively and gently.

I was the scapegoat and was told I am unlovable in the our narcissists family dynamic but I was determined to steel up to her slings and arrows and learn who she is. Gently.

I asked about her father who died before I was born. What was he like? She said he was a good man. (My grandmother divorced him). I asked about her friends in the Bronx back then. Who did you hang with? What did you do?

She got silent and seemed to shrink in the car. After a couple of minutes she yelled “Look! I’m sorry! Is that what you want!”

Then three of the uncomfortable hours of silence I ever endured on the drive back to NYC.

I thought to myself “She knew. She knew what she was doing to her children. And yet she did it anyway.”

That’s when I decided to go NC. No contact for the rest of their lives. I did it to protect my marriage and myself. (The marriage didn’t make it.) but I’m still here.

This past December 4th would have been her 100th birthday.

    Jonice Webb PhD - December 11, 2017 Reply

    Dear Tyler, that story is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Sometimes you can only see a parent’s true heart by making yourself fully vulnerable, and that takes incredible courage. I’m glad you were able to protect yourself because these types of parents will take you down with them if you allow it. Thank goodness you did not. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It will help many, I have no doubt.

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